Fully healed, Ordonez flourishing for Tigers

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July 2 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

On consecutive days recently, Jim Leyland peered into the Detroit Tigers clubhouse, turned to his right, in the direction of Magglio Ordonez's locker, and boisterously yelled, "Magglio!!" as if he had seen his right fielder for the first time in years. On the second day this occurred, Carlos Guillen, who sits next to Ordonez, playfully wondered why he did not get the same greeting. Perhaps if Guillen had posted similar numbers as Ordonez (.383-13-67), one of the leading MVP candidates in the American League, Leyland would be compelled to yell for Guillen, too.

"It's the Mags that I know and I remember," Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield said. "I know he's been hurt with his knee. Everybody around the league knows it. But I always knew Mags was an MVP caliber player every year."

Ordonez is healthy now, healthier than he has been in years as a result of a radical and experimental knee surgery not well known in the United States, and not usually performed on baseball players.

To fix an ailing knee that would not heal because blood had stopped circulating to a certain spot on the bone, Ordonez, after the 2004 season with the Chicago White Sox, went to Austria, Vienna to have shock wave therapy performed by Dr. Wolfgang Schaden.

"It was not an easy decision," Ordonez says. "I visited with more than 10 doctors in the United States and none of them could give me a concrete answer about my knee. So I had to make a decision quickly because I was going to be a free agent and I didn't have a job."

The shock waves caused microfractures, which allowed blood to circulate to the injured area of Ordonez's knee. Ordonez's once renowned opposite field power now finally has been restored.

"The difference I saw after playing against him the last couple of years, is when he was coming off of his injuries it seemed he didn't have a lot of power to the opposite field," Sheffield said. "And I think that has to do with your legs being under you. Now that he has his legs, he's able to drive the ball like he wants."

He is again the star he once was, though now with a long tangled mane of curly hair.

"I think he's crazy and I think he needs to cut it," Mets bench coach Jerry Manuel, the White Sox manager from 1998-2003, said of Ordonez's hair. "But he probably feels it's a Sampson type thing right now. If he cut it he might be getting weak. So he won't cut it. As long as he's hitting well, he ain't going to cut it. I can guarantee you that."

Ordonez spent almost two seasons recovering from the knee injury. Though he posted power numbers last season (24 home runs, .477 slugging percentage) that far surpassed the eight home runs he hit in an injury-stricken first season with the Tigers, the right fielder was not altogether healthy. Leyland noticed Ordonez was often in pain or simply could not perform at an elite level.

"One of the things I noticed and felt was that I still wasn't the strong and quick athlete that could compete against anyone," Ordonez said. "I couldn't throw the ball hard with all my strength, couldn't run like I was accustomed to, it was difficult to change directions when I was running. I think it was a matter of being patient."

The surgical procedure that fixed the knee was so radical, several of Ordonez's Tigers teammates didn't even know it existed. Second baseman Placido Polanco, who confused Austria with Australia, yelled from across the room: "Magglio you really went down there to have that surgery? They probably put a kangaroo ligament in your knee."

The surgery scared several teams away from bidding for Ordonez, which allowed the Tigers to aggressively pursue him.

Days prior to a scheduled Ordonez workout for six teams, the Tigers signed him to a five-year, $75 million deal. To protect themselves, the Tigers added a clause in the contract that allowed them to void the deal if Ordonez spent 25 or more days on the disabled list because of the knee injury.

"We knew there was risk, but not a great deal or we wouldn't have made the deal," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "If he made it through the first year, we were confident the injury wouldn't affect him in the long run."

With the signing, Ordonez's eight-year tenure with the White Sox ended. Often overlooked with the White Sox because of Frank Thomas, Ordonez had been one of baseball's most unknown potent hitters. From 1999-2003 Ordonez averaged 32 home runs, 118 RBIs and a .311 batting average for Chicago. He had been a force almost from the first moment he was in big league camp in spring training.

"In spring training, if you were on Field 4, and he was hitting on Field 8, you could hear it," Manuel said. "He was that type of guy. When I first saw him, just the sound [of his bat hitting the ball was different]. I'm a big proponent of that. When a young player makes a different sound with that bat, I took notice."

Though Ordonez had a successful tenure in Chicago, the White Sox did not make a serious effort to re-sign him after the 2004 season.

"We wanted to win a championship and for us to pay Mr. [Scott] Boras' price, we would have had to sacrifice one to two key players to fit in Maggs salary in our overall budget," White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said.

That 2004 winter was not the first time teams mistakenly had shied away from Ordonez. As a 16 year old, Ordonez was signed to the Houston Astros' Venezuelan academy by famed scout Andres Reiner, who developed such stars as Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu and Melvin Mora. Yet because Houston had not found a position for him to play, the Astros chose not to sign him to a professional contract. Reiner sent Ordonez to a White Sox scout for a tryout.

"Does he drink? Does he steal?" Reiner remembers the White Sox scout asking after the tryout. "Why isn't he signed?"

Reiner responded, "No, he's the healthiest player we have."

The Tigers can now say the same thing.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.